Prove naysayers wrong on soil health

Farm Progress Hand holding soil
LOOK BELOW: It is easy to drive by and judge a farmer’s field. Why is it ripped up? Is it weed-free? Are the plants healthy? But sometimes, the success of a farm management practice, like no-till, is seen below ground.
Immersion opens eyes to possibilities presented by changing tillage practices.

Nothing like diving right in to right my wrongs.

During my few college years in South Dakota, I forged many great friendships, and those friendships have developed into lifelong ag-industry connections. Of course, as we get together since our collegiate years, we reminisce about old times, but conversations usually meld into what’s going on in our current ag worlds.

I flash back to a conversation a couple decades ago when a west-river friend visited our southern Minnesota area in early spring, before a seed had been planted. My dear friend grimaced at the landscape that lay in front of him. All we saw was black as we traveled to northeast Iowa for a wedding. “Don’t they know what they’re doing to their soil?” he asked indignantly. “They should be no-till, or at least reduced-tillage.”

My retort was: “That won’t work around here. The soils around here are so thick and heavy that they won’t dry out until July if we no-tilled.”

He shook his head, and said, “Yes it can work, if they do it right.”

As I look out my office window today, I see some snow cover, but more black soil with a smattering of soybean stubble. I also see that not a lot has changed in the decades that have passed since my friend’s hair got bristled. Sure, some farmers around here have toyed with minimum tillage, reduced tillage — heck, there are even some no-tillers. But for the most part, there aren’t too many converts, let alone believers, around these parts.

Maybe it is time catching up with me, or me catching up with the times. But in my short tenure with this magazine, I am becoming educated about soil health and how all methods of tillage, or lack of, play into soil health.

Personalized session

I can’t even count the number of virtual events that I have attended during COVID-19, and the majority of these have focused on soil health. One of the first virtual soil health sessions that I tuned into felt like it was personalized for me, recalling that windshield conversation from so long ago.

The panelists squelched those saying and believing that “No-till won’t work here,” offering anecdotal evidence in addition to years of research that, regardless of climate and soil types, no-till will work.

In today’s instant-gratification world, one of the biggest failures in adopting reduced-tillage practices (after not trying it at all) is not giving it enough time. If your farm has been heavily tilled for the past 100-plus years, you cannot expect to see eye-popping results after trying no-till for only a year or two. Seasoned reduced-till and no-till veterans will tell you there is no quick cure when making the transition from tillage to some method of conservation tillage.

They will also tell you that there is no right way to make the conversion. As with any farming practice, there is trial and error, as well as taking one step forward and two steps back. But talk to many of the reduced-tillage veterans, and they will tell you the biggest mistake is not taking that first step — or not taking that step sooner.

Block the negativity

External and internal pressures can prevent farmers from taking the steps necessary to follow through or to stick with a change in farming practice. Those same naysayers telling you that “No-till won’t work here” will more than likely be the ones criticizing your move. As the saying goes, “Seeing is believing,” so you may just have to show them what is taking place on your land, and to look beyond, or below, the vegetation that they see above ground.

The real conservation-tillage success story is told below ground level, with the improving soil health, increased organic matter, greater root masses and more earthworms.

Before you can show neighbors that what you are doing is right for your farm, your soil and your future, you need to look within and convince yourself of all of the above. As Jimmy Emmons, a self-proclaimed “recovering tillage addict” from Oklahoma, recently told attendees of the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s Soil Health Conference, “What’s between our ears sometimes is the limiting factor as to what we think is possible.”

Thinking about making a move to conservation tillage, or any other change in your farming operation? Talk with others who have experience with such a change, glean as much as you can from them, learn from their mistakes and absorb as much as you can. If this is a move that you feel is truly right for you and your farm, become blind and deaf to all those telling you it won’t work. You will be well on your way to improving your farm, your soil and your farm’s future.

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